Cleveland Indians' 2012 Season Is Falling Apart: Where Do We Go from Here?

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Cleveland Indians' 2012 Season Is Falling Apart: Where Do We Go from Here?
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

I was supposed to be working on homework for my grad class. But as I sat at my computer, I was only half reading my Sport Finance textbook while the other half of me was dialed into the MLB At Bat app on my iPhone and the majestic voice of Tom Hamilton.

It was Thursday night, July 26, and the Indians were hanging with the Tigers and Justin Verlander in the finale of a vital three-game series at Progressive Field. In the top of the seventh, with two men on and only one out, Joe Smith came on in relief to face Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, and in one of the most crucial yet overlooked plays in that game, Smith induced an inning-ending double play.

I was so fired up afterwards that when I heard the Indians hitters due up in the bottom half of the inning (Santana, Hafner and Lopez) I actually thought: “What if they hit back-to-back-to-back home runs?”

It wasn’t totally out of the question. All three hitters had good power, and Verlander hadn’t been his usual un-hittable self that night.

Well, my premonition was only two-thirds correct. Santana and Hafner connected on near-identical 93 MPH fastballs and sent them sailing into the seats in right field.

The Indians continued to rally and added two more runs to take a shocking 5-3 lead.

You know the rest: Pestano and Perez closed the door and the Indians came out with a huge game and series win over the leader in the division.

There was very real belief that this could be the turning point in the season for the Tribe. They were about to embark on a road trip that would start out with two series against the worst teams in the American League.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

What if the Indians swept both those series?

What if Antonetti and Shapiro made a big trade to bring in a right-handed power hitter?

What if the Tigers and White Sox began to struggle?

What if the Indians actually made the playoffs?

What if?

Well, you know by now that none of that happened. The Indians went to Minnesota and Kansas City and were swept in glorious fashion, getting out-scored 48-17 over six games.

At the trade deadline, Chris Antonetti only made a couple of minor moves, picking up Brent Lillibridge and Lars Anderson in separate deals from Boston, neither of whom will impact the team this year.

So, where does the team go from here?

While the Indians still believe they can compete this year (as they should) it's pretty clear that they're over-matched and need several pieces to be a playoff team.

The rest of this season should be focused on preparing the young players for the future. There is still a solid core to the team. Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Kipnis, Brantley and Santana are all players that are keepers and could be a solid core of a playoff team.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

After that though? No one else excites me.

Hopefully Lonnie Chisenhall can get healthy and stay healthy. Maybe Lars can anchor down first base. But those are question marks.

None of the players currently roaming left field should be on the team next year.

The back end of the bullpen is outstanding. The rest of the pitching staff needs work.

Justin Masterson hasn't been as good this year as last, and certainly hasn't pitched like a No. 1 starter. Ubaldo Jimenez has about one great game in every five. The problem is that in the other four, he struggles to get through six innings without giving up five runs.

There's hope that Zach McAllister can be a staple in the rotation, but we've seen this film before with promising young arms (Jeremy Sowers anyone?).

Who knows what we'll get from the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona when he's eligible to return to the team later this month. He always pitched like a guy with multiple personalities before, so maybe now that he's actual himself again, he'll pitch like it.

The question is, which one will it be?

And then there's the matter of the disconnect with the fans. The Indians are dead last in MLB in attendance. For a fanbase that sold out Jacobs Field 455 consecutive games, it's pretty telling to average below 50 percent capacity.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

After selling off two Cy Young winners and getting almost nothing in return, the fans don't believe that ownership will invest in the team and keep winning players in town.

The Dolans can have all the Dollar Dog Nights, fireworks shows and fan giveaways they want, but if they really want to keep fans coming to games, they're going to need to spend money to keep the players they have and bring in supporting pieces at better-than-discount prices, like Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman.

Shin-Soo Choo's agent is Scott Boras, probably one of the most ruthless agents in all of sports. (Read what Bill Simmons had to write about how Boras got Manny Ramirez out of Boston.) There were some rumors that the Indians might move Choo at this past deadline (via The Plain Dealer) since conventional wisdom is that they will not be able to re-sign him when he's a free agent after the 2013 season.

I wouldn't trade Choo unless you're getting back major league-ready talent. If they lose him in free agency, they'll get draft pick compensation, which is probably better than the crap they ended up getting for Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia.

Not to mention that Choo is an integral part of the team that is still good enough to contend this year (with additions of course).

Getting rid of Choo for anything less than solid starters (maybe a right-handed power bat?) is a signal that the Indians don't believe they can win next season, as they've been claiming all year.

If the Dolans want get the fans back, they need to do something drastic, like re-sign Choo. I know this sounds crazy, actually keeping your good players and all, but they can't afford the backlash of letting talented players leave in either trades or free agency.

J. Meric/Getty Images

Another crazy idea...Cliff Lee was put on waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies. How about going out and picking him up?

I know this will never happen because the owners are cheap, but it needs to be put out there. Here's an opportunity to pick up a front-line starter (who won a Cy Young for you by the way), but the Dolans won't be willing to spend the money.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the front office refuses to pay for talent when the fans have proved that they will pay to come to games and watch it.

If the owners don't want to pay for talent, then why should the fans?

This is all, of course, just conjecture, since we all know that as long as the Indians have cheap owners, they won't make big moves even when the team is within striking distance.

For the rest of the season, then, the team needs to trim the fat. They started that by waiving Derek Lowe who, after a very strong start to the season, has been downright terrible over the past couple months.

I had to re-write this next part because before I got done, the Associated Press reported they designated Damon for assignment and recalled Ezequiel Carrera (per ESPN). So at least they realize these guys are doing more harm than good.

Duncan and Kotchman need to be the next to go. What are they doing on this team taking up roster spots when guys like Lars Anderson, Russ Canzler and Matt LaPorta are all hanging out in Columbus?

Ed Zurga/Getty Images

They might all suck, but there's no better time than the present to figure that out.

Finally, it might be time for Manny Acta to go. I'm not normally "fire the coach" guy. But in sports, sometimes you need to make a change in the man in charge to send a jolt through the team and show that the status quo is not acceptable.

And since you can't fire all the players, this seems like the next best thing.

The Acta supporters can only give the Colt McCoy argument as to why he should stay. Yes, he does not have enough to win with. But instead of giving me excuses not to get rid of you, I'd rather hear some reasons why I should keep you.

There's too much of that going on in Cleveland. Excuses, excuses, excuses...with not enough results.

And while we're talking about a lack of results, Antonetti can't skate free here either. It's hard to say whether he's just not good at his job, or that he's hamstrung with financial constraints.

The Rays, Pirates and A's all have lower payrolls than the Indians, and yet all are at least five games over .500 and have very real chances to make the playoffs. (If the season ended today, both the A's and Pirates would be in.) 

The Reds and Nationals only have slightly higher payrolls than Cleveland, and yet they're the two best teams in the National League.

It can't be denied that it's difficult for Antonetti to compete with the payroll he has to work with. But it also can't be denied that he has not made good use of the funds that he does have.

Need I remind anyone that the ghost of Grady Sizemore is getting paid $5 million this year?

His moves to bring in veteran leaders like Lowe, Damon and Kotchman have not only not worked out, but been abject failures.

And I hate to beat a dead horse, but Antonetti could have solved the veteran leader, right-handed power bat and gold glove first baseman roles all in one player at the modest price of a utility player and a minor league pitcher.

But the Indians decided they didn't need Kevin Youkilis, and now he has a .799 OPS for the division rival White Sox.

Going into this season, there was a general belief among Cleveland fans that the Indians were the closest of the three major teams to winning a championship.

I thought so too.

However, I'm not sure it's the case anymore. At least, it doesn't feel like it. Both the Browns and Cavs are definitely trending up; there's hope that there is a very good core on each of those young teams.

The Indians are trending down and are floundering heading down the stretch. They're getting swallowed up by the NFL. Come September, the Indians will be lucky to draw 10,000 fans to games.

I wish this wasn't the case. Baseball is the game of my youth. I love following a pennant race, and there's nothing better than October baseball. But it's tough to get so fully invested in a team that can't make it through July.

Unless there are drastic changes to either the team, ownership or front office, the Indians will be hard-pressed to get fans to buy into the team next spring.

What if the Indians actually made a big move to excite the fans?

What if they sold out Progressive Field on more than just Opening Day?

What if the most entertaining thing about the team wasn't Mike Polk's YouTube videos?

What if there was October baseball in Cleveland?

"Who knows what might happen?"

What if?

 

You can follow Benjamin Flack on Twitter @ClevelandFlack.

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